Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books Page 1 of 5

PRESIDENT KENNEDY……A NEW BIOGRAPHY

“JFK”, by Fredrik Logevall, (Penguin Books) is the first volume of a two volume biography of the US President who was killed in Dallas in 1963. It covers the period up to 1956 with a lot of personal and family detail.

Kennedy was a moderate student, but one who read widely. He was serious and introspective, but he also used people without much concern for their feelings. This was particularly the case in his relations with women.

 He came from an unnaturally competitive family and displayed great physical courage, both in his wartime service, and in his battle with illness throughout his life.

While his father, Joe Kennedy, supported appeasement and isolationism in the 1930s, JFK , in contrast, supported US military activity abroad, and criticised President Truman for the  “loss” of China to the Communists.

This is a very readable, if slightly long, book.

MYTHS ABOUT HISTORY CAN LEAD TO FUTURE ERRORS

An unrealistic understanding of the past can lead popular opinion, and politicians, into tragic errors.

Felix Larkin has recently published a collection of essays, entitled “Living with History”, that deals the use and abuse of historical commemorations,  and of official versions  history, in Ireland. 

 Popular opinions about history frequently involve mythologizing certain events, and over simplifying  the choices that were available to decision makers at the time. 

For example, Felix Larkin robustly challenges the popular view, endorsed in his recent book  by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, that the border was “imposed “  on Ireland, against its will, by the British in 1920.

 Larkin points out that Redmond and Carson had accepted some form of partition in principle in 1914, and again in negotiations after the Rising in late 1916. So also did the majority of TDs, who had been elected under a Sinn Fein banner,   when they accepted the Treaty of 1921 by a vote in the Dail. 

 On each occasion the Irish leaders in question shrank from the prospect of a prolonged and bitter sectarian war, and even more deaths, that would have been necessary to impose a united Ireland on a resisting unionist population. 

 They were realists, facing their unpleasant responsibilities, and realists are rarely suitable subject for romantic historical commemorations.  We are being reminded of this by recent events. I am not sure much has changed. There is still a widespread view that unionists will cease to be unionist once there is a border poll. 

As Larkin sees it, the role of the historian is to debunk myths about the past.

 The historian’s role is to recognize that nothing that happened in the past was necessarily inevitable.  History is the result of an accumulation of a series of individual decisions, each one of which could have been different.  Politicians and citizens are, and always were, the shapers of their own destiny within the constraints that existed at the time.

So the study of history, and the well chosen commemoration of past events, should enable us, by learning from the consequences of   past decisions, to make better decisions in the future.

 It should encourage the taking of responsibility, rather than undue submission to victimhood, nostalgia or the blaming of others.

Larkin’s book covers many other topics, the contrast between the ideologies that inspired the 1798 and 1848 rebellions, the successes and failures of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the varying attitudes of the Catholic Hierarchy to political violence.

 It also explores the appropriation of the religious feast of Easter by the faction of the IRB that launched the Rising, including through the use of religious imagery and notions of blood sacrifice in the Proclamation . 

 Even to this day, in secular Ireland, the 1916 Rising is commemorated on Easter Sunday, whenever that falls under the Christian calendar, rather than on 24 April each year, which is the actual anniversary.  This purely secular commemoration should probably not be conflated with the Resurrection of Christ. Each should be recalled by modern Ireland on their own merits.

Larkin believes democracy should infuse commemoration, so the foundational event of this state should be recognised as the anniversary of the meeting of the duly elected First Dail in 1919. This was a democratically sanctioned event, whereas , as a matter of historical fact, the  1916 Rising was not.

Felix Larkin’s book deserves to be widely read. It gives a very personal perspective, and offers insights that will help all residents of this island, whatever their allegiance, shape a peaceful  future,  free of grievance and myth.

He is a former senior official in the Department of Finance and later in the National Treasury Management Agency. 

All the while, he has also been an historian writing about many topics, most notably the history of Irish newspapers, something he first took up as a graduate student as far back as 1971. 

Felix Larkin’s work on newspapers has given him a unique window into contemporary Irish public opinion, over two centuries.

THE ANGLO /IRISH AGREEMENT OF 1985……….A PROFOUND IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS,

HAS IT BEEN UNDERMINED BY BREXIT?

This book gives a lively account, by one of the leading diplomats on the British side, of the origins and negotiation of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. It is well written and a valuable contribution to history.

 It also gives a searing insight into Mrs Thatcher’s governing style from the perspective of someone who had to work with her. 

Mrs Thatcher had strong prejudices, mainly of an English nationalist kind. Her eventual acceptance of the Anglo Irish Agreement was a case of her even stronger sense of political realism eventually overcoming her prejudices.

 But it was a stormy process. Mrs Thatcher was difficult to brief and hard to keep on topic. David Goodall describes her “eclectic and discontinuous style of argument”, and how she often adopted a “hectoring and tangential mode, both confusing and dominating the discussion”. 

She saw the nationalist minority situation in the Northern Ireland, as similar to that of the Sudeten Germans in pre war Czechoslovakia, hardly a hopeful starting point.  

That she was eventually won around to a more balanced appreciation of the Irish problem is a tribute to the persistence and persuasiveness of Garret FitzGerald, and also of her own Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe.

 Indeed, Howe emerges as an unsung hero of the whole process, along with his Irish counterpart, Peter Barry. These two men, and their officials, kept the show on the road, despite many discouragements, not least the horrifying attempt by the IRA, to murder Mrs Thatcher herself in Brighton on 12 October 1984. That she could agree something as radical as the Anglo Irish Agreement, so soon after this, showed real statesmanship.

Mrs Thatcher liked and trusted Garret FitzGerald. But he had to overcome deep British fears and prejudices. Goodall says Garret was so convinced of his own and his party’s loathing of the IRA, that he could never understand why, in the eyes of many British people including Mrs Thatcher, Irish nationalism as a whole was tainted with the terrorist brush.

Goodall praises John Hume’s “deep strategic thinking” and his reasonableness in public. But he found him unwilling in private to say what  the Irish government might offer unionists as reassurance that they were not being driven down the road towards a united Ireland.

 This Agreement gave, for the first time,  the Irish government a  formal  Treaty based right to put forward proposals on political, security, legal and cross border issues in respect of Northern Ireland. It was given a means of doing this through an Inter Governmental Conference, which was to meet regularly at ministerial level and which was supported by a Secretariat based in Belfast. 

 By agreeing to this, the UK accepted that Northern Ireland was no longer a purely internal British matter. The UK government also pledged itself to make determined efforts to resolve differences that might arise on these proposals from Dublin.   This was an important breakthrough in psychological as well as legal terms. 

It was resented deeply by unionists, but was a necessary step on the road towards acceptance by unionists of equality between the two traditions, without which the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 could never have been negotiated, with the inclusion of unionist political parties.

From an Irish government point of view, the goal of the Agreement was to combat northern nationalist alienation from the state and its security services and this persuade them  to disavow any support for the IRA campaign and support the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein. The Agreement did not achieve this goal at the time, and the SDLP’s political distinctiveness was later blurred by the Hume/Adams dialogue.

At the time of the Agreement , Northern Ireland was under direct rule from London. The UK wanted to devolve powers to a Northern Ireland Assembly, but the SDLP was not willing to participate because of the way in which the power sharing government, established in 1973 at Sunningdale , had been brought down by a Loyalist strike. The SDLP would not re enter the Assembly without stronger guarantees on power sharing and  north/ south arrangements, and it looked to Dublin to get such guarantees for  them, which  eventually came about through the Good Friday  Agreement.  

  The Agreement also contained an incentive to Unionists to share power with the SDLP in a devolved administration because it said that the Irish government would give up its right to “put forward proposals” under the Agreement , on any subjects that were devolved to a  power sharing Administration.  So Unionists had a simple choice- share ministerial power with the SDLP, or put up with Dublin being involved. 

One of the British goals in the negotiation was better cooperation between the security forces and this was to be an important part of the work of the Inter Governmental Conference. Garret FitzGerald’s idea of mixed courts, including judges from the South sitting on sensitive cases involving terrorist offences in Northern Ireland, did not , however , make it into the final Agreement. 

On the long term status of Northern Ireland, the Agreement reaffirmed that a majority, at that time , wished to remain in the UK,  but it  added that if, in future, a majority

 “clearly wish for and formally consent  to the establishment of a united Ireland”

 both governments would give effect to this.

 This wording is more nuanced than that of the Good Friday Agreement , which leaves less room for negotiation and preparation for such a radical step, and does not even require formal consultation with the Irish government before a border poll might be called..

Goodall tells his readers that when he first came to deal with the Northern Ireland question,  he thought then that

“the circumstances of Northern Ireland were such as to make it impossible  for it to function contentedly , either as an integral part of the UK tout court , or as part of a united Ireland”

If that was true in 1983, it is unfortunately still true today. 

The “aspirations” of the two communities, which loom large in this and subsequent Agreements negotiated between the two  governments, are fundamentally contradictory.  Both the Good Friday Agreement and the Downing Street declaration talk of respect  for unionist and nationalist “aspirations”,  even though these aspirations contradict one another, and for one to succeed, the other must fail. Perhaps the focus on aspirations of this nature was a mistake

 As long as the unionists and nationalist communities are defined, and described by themselves and others ,  in terms of  their competing and contradictory “aspirations” around the constitutional status,  it is hard to see Northern Ireland, of the island as a whole, “functioning contentedly”, as Goodall put it.  

 Brexit , and the pressure for an early border poll, have combined to sharpen the divide even further. Perhaps it is time for the two governments, and the parties in Northern Ireland,  to  move away from seeing their  task in terms of finessing  two incompatible aspirations for the future, and  decide to focus instead on goals which unionists, nationalists, and the middle ground between,  would be  content to achieve together and be proud of achieving.

It is also worth asking whether Brexit,  by  the resulting Anglo/Irish  political tensions it has brought, and the deep structural divergence it will create between the neighbouring islands, has undone the achievement of 1985.

Book review I wrote for in the “Irish Examiner” 


AUTHOR;           David Goodall
TITLE;             The Making of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985
PUBLISHER;     National University of Ireland 
PRICE ;           20  Euros

ANTHONY EDEN……A PRIME MINISTER IN THE WRONG DECADE

I recently read  “Eden. The life and times of Anthony Eden”  by DR Thorpe.

Anthony Eden was  a brave and effective British Foreign Secretary in the 1930s.

He resigned in February 1938 because the Chamberlain government was not taking a sufficiently robust stand against Mussolini, who had invaded Abysinnia in defiance of the League of Nations. 

He continued to oppose the efforts of Chamberlain to avoid war, by doing business with Hitler and Mussolini over Czechoslovakia.

For a time, Eden was even considered as an alternative to Chamberlain  in the event that Chamberlain was forced to resign as Prime Minister.

An opinion poll take in March 1938 showed that Eden had 38% support as a potential successor to Chamberlain as Prime Minister, whereas Churchill , who did become Prime Minister in 1940, had only 7% support!

This was because Eden had been in the public eye, while Churchill had sidelined himself because of his reactionary views on self government for India.

When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he invited Eden to be his Foreign Secretary. He was thereafter considered to be Churchill’s heir apparent.

Eden played an important role in cementing the alliance with the US, which was important to the eventual victory over Germany.  On the other hand , it was the Soviet Union, which Hitler foolishly attacked in 1941, which did the biggest share of the fighting.

Churchill was reluctant to leave the stage and did not resign as Conservative leader until 1955, when Eden eventually took over as Prime Minister. 

His term of office in remembered for the failure of the Anglo French attack on Egypt in 1956 to prevent the Egyptian government taking over the Suez Canal. 

Oil supplies to Europe came through the Canal , and Eden saw the Egyptian leader, Nasser as similar to Hitler and Mussolini.

 In reality, even if the Canal was nationalised, it would still have been in Egypt’s interest to keep it open to fee paying shipping, including British and French shipping. The Anglo French intervention was really an exercise in the sort of imperialism which the French and the British had conducted for the previous century or more.

 Crucially, the British and French did not clear the attack with the Americans, who  used  massive economic pressure to force the French and British to withdraw. 

This episode showed that European powers , like the UK and France, could not act alone militarily any more.  Whereas in the 1930’s the US was isolationist, in the 1950’s, it wanted to call all the shots. In military terms this remains the case today. Europe depends on America for its defence.

Eden was Prime Minister when the Messina conference met in 1955 to launch what became the European Common Market. Eden sent a representative, but the UK did not commit itself to anything, whereas the other six nations did so, and eventually drafted and signed the Treaty of Rome, the founding Treaty of today’s European Union.

At the time, Eden would have seen Britain as a global player, and not on a par with a politically unstable France or with recently defeated Germany and Italy. One wonders if the present UK government sees things in a similar way to Eden. 

In a way, Eden’s problem was that his view of the world had been shaped in the 1930’s, and he did not adjust to the world of the 1950’s.

HARRY TRUMAN

I have just finished reading “Truman” by David McCullough, a biography of the man who was President of the United States from 1945 to 1953. Truman grew up in a family in western Missouri, near Kansas City, which was beset by financial difficulties which deprived him the opportunity to go to university.

He opened a clothes shop which failed. He worked as a farmer for half a decade, with modest success. He joined the army in 1917 when the US entered the World War, leaving his sister to run the farm on her own.

It was in the war that Truman’s leadership qualities became evident and, on return from the war, he was encouraged to enter local politics with the support of the Pendergast machine, which controlled Democratic Party politics in his part of Missouri. At that time the Democratic Party was dominant in Missouri politics, in marked contrast to the present situation.

Truman was staunchly Protestant in his religious outlook but was able to work well within the Pendergast machine, which was dominated by people of Catholic and Irish ancestry.

Truman, and his family, would, like much of western Missouri, have had Confederate sympathies and one of his heroes was Robert E Lee. But he was the first Democratic President to promote civil rights for African Americans, so much so that he was opposed in the 1948 Presidential Election by a Southern Democrat, Strom Thurmond.

In many ways he was an accidental President. As Vice President, he became President when Franklin Roosevelt, who had just been elected for a fourth term, died. The death was not unexpected, but Roosevelt had done nothing to prepare Truman for his responsibilities. The way in which he was selected by Roosevelt was casual to the point of being irresponsible. Truman proved to be a more straight talking and uncomplicated leader than Roosevelt had been. He was an effective decisionmaker.

One of the attractive things about this book is the way it describes Truman’s daily life. Apart from his time in Washington, he lived with, and in a house belonging to, his mother in law in Independence, Missouri.

He was devoted to his family and much of the material in this book comes from his letters to his wife, daughter and cousins.

Harry Truman was President of the US when it was at the height of its powers. He made sure that the US would play a leading role in containing the advance of Communism and in promoting the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from war.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO IRISH CATHOLICISM?

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist, based in Germany for the last 20 years, and he has written “The Best Catholics in the World, The Irish, the Church and the end of a Special Relationship” which was published recently.

His perspective on the subject is shown in the dedication of the book to his parents, “with thanks for their belief”. 

 Aged 44, he says he is “a member of the last generation to have a full Irish Catholic childhood”.

 He served as an altar boy at Mass in his North Dublin parish, but now admits to having a “shaky grasp on Roman Catholicism”.

This is an honest book and painful reading, all the more so because the author is not fundamentally unsympathetic to Irish Catholicism. He sees that it had given meaning and purpose, to the lives of successive generations of Irish people.

He conducted hundreds of interviews with members of Church, from Cardinal Sean Brady, to the head of the Sisters of Mercy, to the people still active in his own old parish in Edenmore. He draws them out  on their understanding of the events that influenced the decline in practice and faith among Irish Catholics over the past 60 years . He also interviewed victims of clerical sex abuse, inmates in mother and baby homes, and women who lived out their lives in places like the Magdalen laundries. 

Inevitably the picture is selective. The focus is on those who suffered, or were treated unjustly in church settings. 

There is no counter factual in the sense  that the book does not explore what might have happened if these church run institutions had never existed, and people were left to their fate. 

There are no international comparisons either. The book deals with early twentieth century Irish Catholicism, as if it was something completely unique for its time. Many of the abuses and cruelties the book identifies were found in other cultures too. 

 It is hard for a reader to quantify how uniquely “Irish”, or “Catholic”, the problems were. My own view is that none of the abuses cited are unique either the Catholicism or to Ireland.

The author accepts that priests and nuns have taken the blame, not only for the failings of some among them, but also for the failings of wider Irish society. 

 Ireland was much poorer financially when some of the abuses occurred. But lack of money is never an excuse for turning a blind eye to rape or cruelty.

 Class distinctions abounded, and “respectability” was at a premium. This encouraged silence about embarrassing things. It allowed “knowing,” but simultaneously not “really knowing”, that certain things were going on. In a sense, people decided not to “know” things that they had persuaded themselves they could do nothing about.

 In this, the church reflected the evasions of Irish society, just as much as the other way around. But it is human nature that, when failings are finally exposed, the anger is often directed at others, or at the system, rather than channelled into an examination of one’s own assumptions.  

 It is true that Irish society was shaped by strict, and sometimes unforgiving, notions of sexual morality, which were inculcated by the Catholic Church. But such notions were not a particularly Irish, or even Catholic, thing. Victorian morality, and Victorian hypocrisy, was to be found on our neighbouring island, and further afield too. It just survived a decade or so longer in Ireland.

It was Irish families, not Irish priests or nuns, who banished unmarried daughters, when they became pregnant.   

It was cash strapped Irish governments which, in the early years of the state, were content to allow  religious orders to take on the responsibility for running reformatories, and  other institutions to shelter people, whose families  who could not, or sometimes would not, look after them. 

This book is impressionistic rather than scientific. The author allows the interviewees to tell their story. It does not provide a roadmap to redemption for the Irish church, or for Irish society, but it contains some hints.

 Although the author thanks his parents for their belief, he admits that religion was never discussed in his home when he was growing up,” let alone personal faith”. That job was left to the school. 

So it is no wonder that, when the scandals came along, people could stop going to Mass and feel good about it, without thinking what they might be losing. The role played by religious practice in providing guard rails within which one could live a good and sane life had never been discussed, or even put into words, and was thus too easily cast aside.

 As Bishop Paul Tighe told the author, the church discouraged people from asking questions. 

“We became a lazy church, and we are reaping that legacy now” he said.

The author, who lives in Germany, might usefully have studied the Catholic Church there over the last century. That might show whether there are lessons Irish Catholicism could learn, or could have learned. Equally he might have established if the Irish case is really as exceptional, as his provocative book title implies. 

While this book will annoy some people, it may be a spur to the necessary heartfelt and rigorous discussion about the role of faith in our society, a discussion Irish people have been postponing for a long time.

It should also prompt us to ask whether this generation of Irish families, like the previous ones, is also capable of turning a blind eye to family responsibilities. The example comes to mind of elderly relatives and neighbours left unvisited in nursing homes. Now the running of these homes is no longer delegated to nuns, but to for profit corporations!

THE PRESIDENT’S TAKE ON THE EUROPEAN UNION

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins has recently published a collection of his speeches entitled  “Reclaiming the European Street, Speeches on Europe and the European Union 2016-20” . The publisher is the Lilliput Press      

Drawing on a lifetime of reading in sociology, philosophy and history, President Higgins makes his case for European unity and for Ireland’s participation in it. 

 As might be expected of a man of the Left, he is critical of capitalism, and sees  state or collective action, whether at national or EU level, as capable of playing a bigger role in helping  the people of Europe to flourish and achieve their potential. 

 For similar reasons he is against what he calls “austerity”, but does not address what is to be done if the interest rate at which a state can borrow becomes unaffordable, which is where Ireland found itself in 2010.

 No politician chooses austerity for its own sake! But sometimes it is necessary to preserve a country’s freedom of action.

AN INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY

 Michael D Higgins was not always enthusiastic about European integration.

 In their introduction to this collection of speeches, his editors, Joachim Fischer and Fergal Lenehan , point out that he campaigned against the Single European Act of 1987, and  also campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. 

These two Treaties provided the legal basis for the EU’s biggest achievements, namely the creation of Single Market, and the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro. They also enhanced the role of the democratically elected European Parliament.

 It would have been interesting if the editors of this collection could have elaborated upon President Higgins’ intellectual journey on European integration, from the sceptical positions he adopted in 1987 and 1992, to the more favourable ones he adopts today. President Higgins journey is one many left leaning politicians have followed and it would have been interesting to tease this out.

In an attempt to understand the evolution of his thinking, I reread some of the speeches he made in the Senate and Dail in the 1980’s on moves to closer EU integration. 

 One major concern he had then was the effect of the new EU Treaties on Irish neutrality. He opposed confining Irish neutrality merely to military matters. He believed Ireland should be politically as well as militarily neutral. Such a position is not sustainable nowadays. The EU is now adopting common positions on geopolitical issues, on a daily basis. As an EU member, Ireland is not politically neutral. States are now so interdependent, that complete political neutrality is almost impossible. The recent cyber attack shows how we need common defences that work.

 Michael D Higgins was also sceptical about the EU Single Market, and feared it would lead to job losses. These fears have not been realised. The contrary proved to be the case. Employment here is much higher than it as in 1992 when the Single Market was inaugurated.

ALTIERO SPINELLI

A clue to the influences that led Michael D Higgins, over the past 20 years, to a more favourable view of European integration may be found in the careers of the people he quotes in the speeches in this book.

The most frequently cited is Altiero Spinelli, author of the European Parliament’s 1984 Spinelli Report, which was the precursor of the Single European Act of 1987. 

Spinelli had been a member of the Communist resistance to Italian Fascism and was imprisoned on the island of Ventotene. There he co wrote the Ventotene Manifesto.

 This Manifesto is mentioned dozens of times in this book.

 Learning from the lesson of the World War, then in progress, the Ventotene Manifesto called in 1941 for a wholly new Europe. It sought 

 “the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national sovereign states”

 because it was

 “impossible to maintain a balance of power between European states”.

It argued for a revolution, with a goal of the emancipation of the working classes. But, interestingly, it added that  

“the working classes must not be left at the mercy of the economic power  of monopolistic trade unions”. 

This may have been a reference to the corporatist trade unions set up under Fascism, but it could be seen as a general argument against the closed shop.

After the War, Spinelli pursued the goal of European Unity, and supported the unsuccessful attempt to set up a European Defence community in 1954. 

From 1970 to 1976, he was a member of the European Commission, and came to Dublin in 1972 when Ireland was debating whether to join the then European Common Market. On that occasion he met Michael D Higgins, and sought to persuade the Irish Labour Party that support for European Unity should not be left to “conservative” parties. 

Spinelli did not achieve his goal at first attempt, as Labour opposed Ireland joining the Common Market at that time.  But Spinelli left a lasting impression on Michael D Higgins, which is evidenced by the contents of Michael D Higgins speeches over 40 years later.

WHAT ECONOMIC ROLE FOR THE STATE?

Another Italian intellectual influence, acknowledged by the author, is the economist Mariana Mazzucato.

 She argues for an “Entrepreneurial State”, claiming that many important technological advances originate in decisions by the public sector, and that economic development cannot be left to the private sector. I agree with this. Indeed free markets themselves can only exist if a state in there to make and enforce rules. 

But when the state itself gets involved directly in managing businesses, it can be slow to adapt to new realities, because of political pressures, including  from monopolistic trade unions, of the kind identified in the Ventotene Manifesto. 

Looking to the future, President Higgins says 

 “EU Institutions must be adequate and sufficient to enable the restoration and protection of social cohesion”. 

This asks too much of the EU.

 The EU is only allowed to spend 1% of EU GDP, and there is no sign that limit will be raised soon. So restoring social cohesion must primarily be the responsibility of member states, which spend 40% of GDP or more, and have the power to levy taxes, in a way that the EU cannot do. 

It is interesting to note that, on the eve of the pandemic, the Economic and Social Research Institute found that income inequality in Ireland was at its lowest level for many years, and 16% below the level it was in 1987. It is notable that this report got little or no coverage in the Irish media.

GREEN AUSTERITY.

The President is right when he condemns the 

“uncritical pursuit of ever accelerating growth without consideration of the consequences”.

That must change if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.

 Lower economic growth will mean less tax revenue and less money to spend. Green living will mean more austere living, and a more limited range of choices.

 It is to be hoped that we will take responsibility for this ourselves as a people, and avoid blaming it on external agencies like the EU.

 The issues raised  in this book are important, and  they reflect a serious and engaged mind.

THE LIFE, AND AFTER LIFE, OF A SPY

I have enjoyed reading “The Happy Traitor, the extraordinary story of George Blake” by Simon Kuper.

Kuper writes regularly in the Financial Times and it was my sense of his talent as a writer, rather than the subject , that initially drew me to this recently published book. 

Blake, although portrayed as a traitor to Britain, was not really British by allegiance. He was Dutch, with a Dutch mother and a father who came from an Egyptian Jewish family. Behar, not Blake was his real surname.

He was brought up as a Calvinist and retained the strict outlook of that faith throughout his life.

Aged 20,he escaped from Nazi occupied Holland to Britain in 1942, via Belgium , France and Spain.

In Britain he joined the Royal Navy and, because of his talent for foreign languages, he was assigned to the intelligence services. He served on Korea during the Korean War, and was captured and imprisoned by the Communists.

It was there, in a North Korean prison, that he began to transfer his allegiance from Calvinism to Communism. 

After his release and return to Britain, he returned to the British intelligence services, but made contact with the Soviet Embassy and stated copying large quantities of top secret material and handing it over to the Soviets. As a result of his activities, hundreds of British informers in the Soviet Union were identified and executed.

His activities were eventually uncovered in 1961 and he was sentenced to 42 years in gaol, a much more severe punishment than that suffered by more upper class traitors like Blunt, Philby and McClean.

As Irish readers will recall he was helped to escape from prison in 1966 by an Irish man he had come to know in prison, Sean Bourke.

He got to Russia via East Berlin and was provided with accommodation and a pension by the KGB.

According to Kuper, in old age, Blake 

“acquired something he had lacked in his youth; the ability to find happiness in the here and now, beyond either power or ideas.” 

He died late last year.

A Difficult Birth: the early years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25

We are approaching the centenary of the coming into existence of Northern Ireland, whose Parliament was opened by King George the fifth on 22 June 1921. This event took place just three weeks before the Truce of 11 July 1921 that ended the Irish War of Independence.

 The creation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland had already been authorised by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It had also authorised the creation of a Parliament of Southern Ireland, with similar devolved powers.

 Elections to both parliaments were held on 24 May 1921, but the Southern Parliament only met once, because the Sinn Fein members refused to sit there, and sat instead in what constituted itself as the second Dail. The Dail was considered to be an illegal assembly by the UK authorities.

When the Northern Parliament met, a substantial majority of those who were elected DID take their seats.  The Unionist Party had won 40 seats of the 52 seats with 66% of the vote, against 6 seats each for Sinn Fein and for Joe Devlin’s constitutional Nationalists who had respectively won 20%, and 11.8%, of the vote. The size of the Unionist victory caused surprise in some quarters, although the voting had taken place against a background of continuing violence. The Sinn Fein and Nationalist MPs did not take their seats in the Northern Parliament at this stage.

The powers of the Northern Ireland Parliament were quite limited, as pointed out at the time, by Lord Donoughmore  and others.

 He said it was “unsound” to set up a Parliament without the usual powers of taxation. Over 90% of the taxes in Northern Ireland (NI) were, he said, to be set and collected by the Imperial Parliament in London.

 To grant the new NI Parliament the power to spend, without also having the responsibility of raising taxes to finance that spending, lent itself to gesture politics and to the systemic avoidance of responsibility. That problem remains to this day in Northern Ireland and other devolved UK administrations.

The Unionists, led by Sir James Craig, who became Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, did not regard the establishment of Northern Ireland as an end in itself. In theory at least, they would have preferred if there had been no devolution of powers at all, and if the whole of Ireland continued to be governed directly from Westminster. In establishing an administration in NI, Ulster Unionists saw themselves as taking on a duty, rather than enjoying a newly conferred freedom.

While they had opposed Home Rule for a united island of Ireland, they were willing to live with Home Rule for two separate parts of Ireland, as provided for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

This arrangement prevented their part of Ulster being subject to Dublin rule, which was their overriding objective.  

Northern Ireland did not enjoy a peaceful birth, as we all know. Violence had  already commenced in 1920. The first casualty was a Clareman, Denis Moroney, an RIC sergeant, who was killed by the IRA in Derry city on 15 May 1920.

But the violence was more overtly sectarian, and lasted much longer, in Belfast. It was am intensification of six similar sectarian outbursts that had occurred at different times in the 19th century.

There were particular reasons for the outburst after the end of the Great War.

Military recruitment had led to a labour shortage, and many Catholics had been recruited, during the War, to fill jobs in Belfast that had previously been filled by Protestants, in places like the ship yards.

The end of the war in November 1918 meant that many Loyalists returned from the Front, and wanted their jobs back. This led to violent evictions of Catholic workers from their jobs. The Dublin Castle government refused to intervene, on the ground that these were “trade union issues”, and the displaced workers were even initially denied unemployment benefits.

This led to retaliatory attacks on trams carrying Loyalist workers to or from their jobs, whenever the tram route passed through a predominantly Nationalist neighbourhood. Once one knew the terminus of a tram, one could work out the likely religious affiliation of most of the passengers on it!

Several Protestants, who worked in predominantly Catholic workforces, such as the docks and the brewing industry, were also edged out of their jobs.

The IRA murder of RIC commander Gerald Smyth in Cork in July 1920 led to retaliations against the small Catholic community in Banbridge, Smyth’s home town.

Catholics and Protestants in mixed neighbourhoods were burned, or intimidated, out of their homes.

As in the early 1970’s, fugitives sought refuge in Dublin and Cork.

 An ill judged and ineffective boycott of goods manufactured in the North was organised in the South, as a response to the attacks on Catholics.

Under the Truce of 11 July 1921, the IRA had agreed that attacks on Crown forces and civilians were to cease, and there was to be no interference with Government or private property.

Apart from some score settling and house burning, the Truce held in the South until the outbreak of the Civil War a year later. This Truce created space in which it was possible to negotiate a Treaty that led to the creation a Free State government for Southern Ireland (a government that did have the responsibility of raising taxation!).

 But the Truce of July 1921 did not hold in Northern Ireland.  In fact the conflict intensified there, for reasons partially explored in this book.

 Attacks on Catholics continued, and the James Craig’s government took little effective action to stop it. They did establish special constabularies, but these were recruited mainly among the Protestant community.

 In fact, some noteworthy sectarian killings were carried out by people wearing police uniforms.

 60% of the fatalities in this conflict were Catholic, although Catholics were only 35% of the population. Thanks to the pre War gun running, the Loyalist community had more arms and ammunition than Nationalists had.

In early 1922, after the signing of the Treaty, but before the outbreak of the Civil War here, meetings were arranged between Michael Collins and James Craig, in an attempt to reduce the violence. The very fact of such meetings taking place place showed political courage on the part of both leaders.

 In return for an end to the boycott of Belfast goods in the South, they agreed that there would be a reorganisation of policing on non sectarian lines. A Police Committee and a Conciliation Committee were to be set up.  But grassroots Unionist opinion did not take kindly to the pact.

 Neither Collins nor Craig was fully in control of their own side. As a result, false hopes were raised.

 The “Irish Independent” even hoped that the Collins/ Craig pact would be “a great and decided advance towards Irish union”. This optimistic interpretation was without foundation, but it was guaranteed to annoy Unionists. The same excess of optimism is being repeated in some quarters today, in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It could have similar malign results.

 In fact, sectarian killings intensified in the wake of the Craig/Collins pact, on an escalating tit for tat basis.

Six people, some elderly, were killed in Lisdrumliska near Newry by the IRA in June 1922, in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of Protestants from that townland. Three Catholics were shot dead in Cushendun by police, in a futile search for arms.

 When the Civil War started in the South, in August 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts, the trouble subsided somewhat in the North, as many (but not all) of the Northern division of the IRA (like Charles Haughey’s father) went south to join the pro Treaty National Army.

Alan Parkinson gives a thorough account of the suffering on all sides in these years.

 He gives the victims a name, and in so doing restores their humanity. They are no longer just statistics, but people who came from somewhere, lived a life, and then had that life deliberately cut short, by someone who still enjoys the unearned privilege of anonymity.

The circumstances of its birth determine what Northern Ireland is today. Those pressing for a border poll should read this book.

PATRICK KAVANAGH

“Patrick Kavanagh, a biography” by Antoinette Quinn is one of the best, and most engaging , biographies I have ever read.

 It was published by Gill and Macmillan in 2001 and it has been resting unread on my bookshelf ever since. Thanks to lockdown, I finally got around to reading it.

This book opens a window into the social history of Ireland from the 1920’s up to the 1960’s. Kavanagh saw himself as reacting , through his poetry and prose, against the romanticised Ireland of the Literary revival, embodied by Yeats and Synge. 

As a journalistic controversialist,   he even went as far as advocating defunding the Abbey Theatre, the Folklore Commission, and the Arts Council . He favoured the abandonment of compulsory Irish. He objected to the pomp surrounding the President,

While he is remembered  primarily as a poet, he made his meagre living mainly as a freelance journalist, writing for publications such as   “ The Irish Press”, “the Bell”, the “Catholic Standard”(as its film critic),  and the “Irish Farmers Journal”. 

He was not afraid to offend, or to advocate unpopular opinions.  In today’s more puritanical era, he would probably have been the victim of the intolerant Cancel Culture (as was Kevin Myers recently).

He stayed on the farm in South Monaghan until he was 30, when he moved to Dublin, and later London for a while. His early poetry was rural realist, his later work was what one might call Ballsbridge romantic. 

Unrequited love was a theme in both periods, most famously expressed in “On Raglan Road”.

This biography discusses every aspect of his life, his relationship with his parents and his siblings, his many girlfriends, his financial struggles and his eventual alcoholism. 

He was quite a self centred person, but made some lasting friends, notably the late Senator Eoin Ryan (whose political views he would not have shared, but who was consistently generous to him). Other writers were also very helpful to him, but were not always thanked.

To read this book is to live through the life of Dublin in the years before, during , and just after the Second World War. It is brilliant.

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